By Joe Fritts
We’ve had freaks, comedy and corset queens, and now in an era where West Hollywood’s Pride Parade is scrapped for a decidedly more timely #resist march, RuPaul’s Drag Race has caught the wave and crowned its first activist queen. Thank you and welcome, Sasha Velour. Educate the children on their past, and of the time we had our own culture.
RuPaul is a genius. He has created one of the most innovative, funny, and wonderfully intelligent shows, a show that is actually selling subversive drag to over 100 million viewers. RuPaul’s Drag Race has been introducing the world to brilliant (and lovably not-so-brilliant) artists from the queer community for 8 years now, snatching an Emmy trophy for Ru last year (Best Reality Host) and landing eight additional nominations last week. But heavy is the wig that wears the crown.
Season 9 of RuPaul’s Drag Race was a sprawling, listless, masturbatory mess of a show. I wasn’t impressed with the lineup (I am never impressed with the lineup, even when it gave us Violet Chachki and Bob the Drag Queen,) but I went in wide-eyed and with an open heart. That heart was quickly shattered when VH1 decided that the show needed live hosts, and since Andy Cohen already has a job, they just got Wendy Williams. Williams seems like the perfect host for a live viewing party of Drag Race, because she’s probably the draggiest straight woman on television. But Williams was a tone deaf choice. On her own show, she has had audience members removed for being in drag, and regularly makes homo- and transphobic comments to her guests and audience. The always adorable, lovable, riotous Ross Matthews also showed up so that there would be an actual gay man in the sea of presumably hetero, cis women that were all “yaaasss”ing in the audience of the live show.
Oh, and Lady Gaga showed up in the first episode. She wanted to let you know she is a master of illusion and born this way, so you’re welcome, you can pick up an autographed head shot on your way out and don’t forget to buy Joanne, available on iTunes and Amazon Music.
The first episode gets right to it. No boring photo mini challenge, or any mini challenges this season. With no mini challenges, there is no need for man candy. Save one episode, the Pit Crew has been entirely absent, and during their presence, they weren’t even addressed as “The Pit Crew.” These newly neutered queens are getting straight to business. The business here is now talk. Frank talk. Frank talk about the things that hurt them, inspire them… ways in which they can learn to love and respect one another for their differences, all while providing the occasionally helpful makeup tip. We call this “mirror time.”
And where is RuPaul? His workroom consultations were some of the funniest and genuine interactions on the show. Now we have extra mirror time, and it’s very special mirror time. Gone are the days of “look how orange you fucking look,” we are in full swing Afterschool Special mode. Why is that? Because the last appropriation will be when straight women take what we rightfully stole from trans women of color. Oh, and straight women BUY THINGS. Like makeup. So when they’re looking at Farrah Moan’s beautiful (and it really is gorgeous) face, they can also see how she so perfectly beats her mug. If we’re not on Afterschool Special for the Gen-X’ers, we’ve got the YouTube makeup tutorials for the Millenials. Everyone learns a lesson.
The best part of Drag Race isn’t always watching your favorite, seasoned competitor work their way to the top. It’s incredible to just watch new talent that may not necessarily be ready for prime time, but you root for them anyway. Let’s face it, for every faux art comedy genius like Alaska Thunderfuck, there are five Serena Cha Chas. I am a big fan of following the early and midseason queens and seeing how much they’ve grown as performers. Laganja Estranja, Gia Gunn and Trixie Mattel have all blossomed into these beautiful, hilarious, and fabulously talented personalities who are all captivating on social media. The reality contest format didn’t suit their abilities, but on other platforms, their talents shine, and they are fantastic to see live. That is what Drag Race is all about, at its heart. From episode 1 of this season, I felt that the order of elimination didn’t matter, I just wanted half of the cast to be gone, but once we were there, I was left wondering why I cared at all.
For the first time, there were four finalists. In a last minute “twist,” Ru announced that all four finalists would advance to the winner’s circle and would be performing in the finale. This final “everyone gets a trophy” turn is probably one of the most frustrating aspects of the season. Peppermint had lip synced twice and doused herself in more ruched taffeta than you’d see at a midwestern prom. With all of her intelligence and adroit costuming, Sasha had never won anything on her own and Trinity is definitely that old southern pageant queen, regardless of how funny and self-aware she is. Shea was a solid performer throughout the season, but lacks the charisma of Peppermint or Trinity. I just couldn’t help to wonder how well any of these four would hold up against someone like a Phi Phi O’Hara or a Roxxxy Andrews, both fierce personalities who are wickedly competitive perfectionists. Phi Phi and Roxxxy were masters of the reality format, and whether by editing or malice, made captivating villains.
The Drag Race finale usually has some type of format, with the queens either performing a number written specifically for them, or a Q&A from home viewers presented by queens of seasons past. That formula wound up on the cutting room floor, and videos (which have since been removed) showed up on YouTube, with producers opting instead for a rehash of Spike TV’s Lip Sync Battle in an easy to follow NCAA Final Four bracket format. One by one, the competitors were eliminated in the snoozer finale. In the end, we were given our first Queer History and Activist Queen. May her reign be marked by service to her community, and a promise to make Drag Race gay again.